The Novels

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

These three novels are frequently referred to as Juan Goytisolo’s Exile Trilogy, because of their thematic unity and the numerous references within the text of each novel to the fictional reality of the others. The novels portray three stages in Alvaro Mendiola’s search for his “marks of identity”—the significant characteristics of his existence, identified in Juan the Landless as “race, profession, class, family, homeland.”

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Marks of Identity begins in 1963, as Alvaro returns to Barcelona from his exile in France to search for an understanding of his experience at the university in the 1950’s. Renewing his friendship with his fellow students and with Dolores, his former lover, Alvaro examines the relics of his past—family photograph albums, police reports on his underground political activities, places that he frequented during his student days. As he engages in lengthy conversations with his friends, Alvaro remembers and narrates episodes from his youth in Barcelona. At every point, the memories and the present experiences are narrated against the background of the repressive Spanish society of 1963. In the last scene of the novel, as Alvaro prepares to return to his exile in France, he goes to the Castle of Montjuich to look out over the city in which he spent his youth. In the presence of the tourists and the surveillance of the police, he experiences an overwhelming feeling of despair and disillusionment.

Count Julian is the narrative of a typical day in the life of Alvaro Mendiola, who now lives in exile in Tangiers. He gets up in the morning and looks out his window across the straits at his homeland. He sweeps up the dead bugs in his kitchen, takes them to the library, and crushes them between the pages of the volumes of Spanish literary masterpieces, obliterating the sacred words of his cultural heritage. Alvaro then spends the day first in the company of Tariq, the Arab, who takes him to an opium den, and then with the Great Figurehead, Alvaro Peranzules, alias Seneca. The narrator relates a series of hallucinatory scenes which detail a fantasized destruction of traditional Western morals. A tourist, whom the narrator calls the D.A.R. lady, is bitten by a snake charmer’s serpent. As she lies writhing on the ground, bloated by the poison, the Arabs who witness the scene pull up her dress and urinate on her body. The narrator recalls his experience as a child in the biology laboratory with insects that inject poison into one another, then imagines contaminating the blood supply of Spain by donating his own blood after suffering an attack by a rabid dog.

The Great Figurehead extols the virtues of the asceticism of his namesake, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, then takes Alvaro to meet his mother, the devout Queen Isabel la Catolica. Isabel takes Alvaro aside and performs a lewd striptease, while the Great Figurehead, attacked by flying insects after delivering a speech on the beauties of the Spanish literary tradition, dies trying, in vain, to pronounce an obscene word. His funeral cortege is led by a young man with a cross, who is transformed into Julian, the traitor, as the procession becomes an unbridled orgy from which the Hispanic populace flees in terror, pursued by the licentious African invaders.

The Great Figurehead is transformed into a bullfighter, who is run through by the horns of Tariq, the Arab bull, and then into a child, Little Red Riding Hood. His grandmother, Julian, turns him over to Tariq, who rapes him with his enormous serpent. The narrative of Count Julian ends at sunset, once again in the room of the narrator Alvaro Mendiola, who looks across the straits at his mother country and vows that tomorrow the invasion will begin again.

The text of Juan the Landless begins, still in Morocco, with an examination of photographs that evoke the origin of the narrator, Alvaro Mendiola, a white child born of the sexual union between a black slave woman and Chango, the enormous gorilla-god of the slaves of Cuba. The narrative continues as a contemplation of the significance of the Spanish experience, developed through a series of metaphorical scenes. The child Alvaro sits on the toilet while the forces of evil encourage him to defecate and the forces of good urge him to emit only sweet perfume. The black Cuban slaves and the Arabs relieve their bowels in open sewer ditches while Western society first invents the chamberpot, then develops the flush toilet, and finally evolves to the point of not having to expel their body waste at all. The slaves rebel by practicing witchcraft, which makes the whites sweat and smell and menstruate and defecate in the presence of the blacks.

The narrator becomes an Arab watching a perfect Spanish husband and wife copulating in a store window. Then he is King Kong, whose enormous penis intimidates the poorly endowed Spanish bridegrooms and disillusions their innocent brides. The narrator moves the scene to France for a consideration of the role of the Arabs in the 1968 revolution and then passes throughout the Arab world portraying the gradual domination of Western society by the licentiousness of Arab culture.

A dissertation on the ascetic ideals of Spanish culture is transformed into a scene in which the auto-da-fe becomes a spectacle staged for tourists. The king and queen of Spain deliver a speech, pointing out with great pride that they do not defecate. Father Vosk preaches a sermon on the path to perfection, which is a process of becoming immune to the need to empty the bowels. That is followed by a passage which proclaims the virtues of elimination of body wastes and the democratization of all people through the removal of all restrictions on defecation, through a worship of the eye of the Devil—the anus—and through a glorification of the enormous penis of King Kong.

Father Vosk berates the narrator for his departure from the realistic tradition and laments the destruction of modern literature by the invasion of the alienated novel. The novel ends with a discussion of literature and textuality, in which the narrator describes the development of the plotless discourse that becomes a text operating as an autonomous object. In the final pages of the novel, the language breaks down into an incoherent series of words, then a jumble of letters, a passage in transliterated Arabic, and finally, several lines of Arabic script.

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Themes